Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

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This review was written for the theatrical release of "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium."

One of the central characters in "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" longs to achieve the "sparkle" that shows she's inspired and expressing her highest potential. The film, presumably, aims for that same glow. But for all its playful touches and neat-o nostalgia for nondigital entertainment, the whimsy feels forced.

In the director's chair for the first time, Zach Helm juggles some of the same themes he brought to his script for "Stranger Than Fiction" -- the process of storytelling, fear of death and the need to live life to the fullest. As in that movie, there's less here than meets the eye, but without the former's Charlie Kaufman Lite layers of metafiction, the emptiness is often glaringly evident. Helm's slender tale doesn't quite know what to do with its four characters; what might have been pleasing simplicity instead feels thinly conceived. As family-friendly fare starring Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman, the fantasy drama should conjure up decent, if not magical, boxoffice.

Divided into storybook chapters, the film begins at "the beginning of the end" for Mr. Magorium, who, at age 243, is preparing to depart this earthly plane because -- well, enough is enough, and he's out of shoes. For the past 113 years he has run the titular establishment, a sort of enchanted indie FAO Schwarz. Hoffman plays the toy impresario in teased 'do and unruly eyebrows and with a wispy, silly voice. The performance isn't a flat-out miscalculation like Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka, but as oddities go, it's more distracting than compelling.

Magorium plans to bequeath his shop, a storefront/house sandwiched between skyscrapers, to its manager, Molly Mahoney (a convincingly tentative Portman). At 23, she's a onetime musical prodigy who feels stuck, unable to complete the concerto she's been trying to compose. She has a fondness for Emporium regular Eric (Zach Mills), a sweetly geeky 9-year-old who has a knack for invention and troublemaking friends. He tries out his nascent social skills on Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), the accountant Magorium has hired to put his finances in order. Being an accountant, Henry is necessarily an impassive skeptic who can't accept that magic exists. He will, of course, be convinced.

For her part, Molly can't accept that her beloved boss is leaving. Neither can the store, whose red walls begin turning gray -- decor body language for a sulk. The books and stuffed animals start acting out, too, until full-fledged magic mayhem forces Magorium to close shop temporarily.

Within the Crayola-hued profusion created by production designer Therese DePrez and costumer designer Christopher Hargadon, there are lovely fillips, and visual effects designer Kevin Tod Haug brings high-spirited contributions to the low-fi fantasy. There's not a PlayStation 3 in sight but plenty of such delightful diversions as a squeak-toy gavel, a nervous Slinky, a room full of bouncing balls and a particularly expressive sock monkey.

Until the final sequence, though, the phantasmagoria is mildly charming rather than wondrous. That wouldn't be a problem if the characters had more substance. Chanting a pop-psych carpe diem mantra, the film can't find its own pulse. Helping to set a pace is the lush score by Alexandre Desplat and Aaron Zigman, but its ooh-ahh insistence isn't enough to truly entrance.

MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM
Fox
Mandate Pictures and Walden Media presenta FilmColony production in association with Gang of Two
Credits:
Screenwriter-director: Zach Helm
Producers: Richard N. Gladstein, Jim Garavente
Executive producers: Joe Drake, Nathan Kahane
Director of photography: Roman Osin
Production designer: Therese DePrez
Music: Alexandre Desplat, Aaron Zigman
Co-producer: Barbara A. Hall
Costume designer: Christopher Hargadon
Visual effects designer: Kevin Tod Haug
Editors: Sabrina Plisco, Steven Weisberg
Cast:
Mr. Edward Magorium, Avid Shoe-Wearer: Dustin Hoffman
Molly Mahoney, the Composer: Natalie Portman
Henry Weston, the Mutant: Jason Bateman
Eric Applebaum, the Hat Collector: Zach Mills
Bellini, the Bookbuilder: Ted Ludzik
Mrs. Goodman, Who Wants the Store: Kiele Sanchez
Running time -- 94 minutes
MPAA rating: G

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